David Charter

David Charter

LONDON - According to its mayor, half of Amsterdam's prostitute windows must be closed to save Europe's most tolerant city from criminal gangs.

The continent's most open red light district, which sprawls over Amsterdam's entire historic canal district, will be reduced to two main streets under a dramatic downsizing plan drawn up by Job Cohen, the city's mayor.

Cohen, who is also closing a fifth of the city's cannabis [dagga] cafes and a number of sex clubs, denies his clean-up means losing thousands of tourists every year.

He says that he wants Amsterdam to become better known for its art, chamber music and museums rather than as a hotspot for sex and drugs.

There are currently more than 400 of the distinctive neon-lit prostitute windows from where scantily clad women beckon passers-by - and about 700 "coffee shops" selling cannabis joints.

"The tolerance, which we in Amsterdam are proud of, is not the same as indifference," said Cohen, 61, the former rector of Maastricht University, who resigned as the deputy justice minister in Wim Kok's Labour government to become mayor of the city in 2001.

A report drawn up for him by Karina Schaapman, a former prostitute and a member of the city council, described a police file of 80 violent pimps, of whom only three were Dutch-born. She said that more than three quarters of the city's 8000 to 11000 prostitutes were from Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia.

The conclusion was unavoidable for Cohen - international organised criminals were taking over.

The prostitutes' union, the Red Thread, has accused Cohen of using a crackdown on criminal activity as an excuse to close the windows and reverse years of tolerance.

But Cohen said the research showed that pimps were still active: "It is not that we want to get rid of our red light district. We want to reduce it. Things have become unbalanced and if we do not act we will never regain control." - The Times News Service, London